Review: THE CORPSE KING by Tim Curran

The Corpse King by Tim Curran
Cemetery Dance

May 2010

I’m an unapologetic fan of the old Hammer films, so the recent announcement that the current revival of the studio is going to include a literary imprint that will release novelizations of many of their old films was great news to me. I don’t know if they are looking for authors to write those books, but if so I’d like to put a copy of The Corpse King in their hands. After reading it, I can’t imagine a writer better suited to capturing that unique Hammer atmosphere on paper than Tim Curran.

King is set in the early 19th century, a time when legally-obtained medical cadavers were in short supply and high demand. Fortunately for the doctors and universities looking to expand their medical prowess, there were plenty of men of rough character more than willing to fill that demand by any means necessary – provided, of course, that the price was right.

Kierney and Clow were two such men. Like all their grave-robbing brethren, they weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They weren’t afraid to spend long midnight hours in graveyards, either, although there was at least one place where all the ghouls were afraid to go. A graveyard known as the North Ground had developed a reputation for unexplained rumblings heard coming from deep beneath the ground, and it was rumored that the earth under the graves was home to a network of tunnels created by something unexplainable – something that spent its nights scurrying from grave to grave, pulling coffins into its lair and feasting on the remains.

Kierney and Clow scoff at those stories, suspecting that a fellow ghoul named Johnny Sherily was spreading the stories in order to keep others away so he could plunder the North Ground at his leisure. Determined not to fall for Sherily’s ghost stories, they load up their cart one night and head for the cemetery, only to come face-to-face with the terrifying truth.

The plot, as you can see, is pretty straightforward. It’s an old-fashioned monster story in an old-fashioned setting. And like those old Hammer films it brings to mind (not to mention a heavy dose of EC and Warren comics), The Corpse King is heavy on imagery and atmosphere. Curran doesn’t just describe graveyards, he builds them right before your eyes, one lichen-encrusted tombstone at a time. The streets Kierney and Clow pull their cart along are grimy, slick with human waste and refuse. The mood is bleak, depressing, vile and hopeless.

So, too, are the characters. Aside from Curran’s tendency to sometimes lean too heavily on the descriptive passages, a habit which more than once slows the story to a crawl, the lack of someone to root for is the one sticking point I have about The Corpse King.

These quibbles might derail some books entirely, but not so in this case. Yes, Curran does spend a lot of time setting the scene, but he’s so good at it you really won’t mind. Likewise, a likeable graverobber would be a difficult character to pull off convincingly, so Curran’s choice to draw these characters as shallow, disgusting leeches rings absolutely true.

The Corpse King is the twenty-first entry in Cemetery Dance’s novella series, and it’s a standout part of the lineup. You’ll blow through the 136 pages with a grin on your face and, if you’re like me, head to the Internet immediately to see what else Curran has out there.

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